Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gender and the Classical Music World

While making my morning espresso, I did what I so often do: listen to NPR. This morning featured Scott Simon's interview with composer Jennifer Higdon and conductor Marin Aslop. Give the interview, and the sample recording of their music, a listen. Simon planned the interview to celebrate the fact that next month, Higdon's Violin Composition will be performed by Hillary Hahn with Aslop conducting her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: female composer, performer and conductor. No mean feat in the male-dominated classical music world. Obviously, Simon saw this performance as both a reason to celebrate women's achievements in the classical music world and an opportunity to discuss why such achievements are so few and far between.

Yet, Simon was quite surprised to discover that Aslop and Higdon, long-time friends, had never explicitly discussed issues of gender in the classical music world--a fact that I, too, found shocking. Aslop insisted on this point, stating that "the interview Jennifer and I did with NPR's Scott Simon was the first time we'd talked seriously about women in the music industry. I think we did so only because we expected others to be curious about it." While Aslop did clarify that they both "examined the issue, especially in our positions as mentors to the next generation of women coming up through the ranks," she also insisted that gender rarely enters her mind when she works because she is simply too busy focusing on the music itself.

I'm sure Aslop's position is common among artists of all genders. Who wants to be thinking consciously about politics, more specifically the politics of discrimination, when brandishing that conductor's baton, paintbrush, or pen? On the other hand, I firmly believe that, unless the artist lives in an isolationist bubble, politics necessarily inform art, both consciously and unconsciously. Must not a female musician feel the impact of a professional world where few women work as conductors? Where few compositions created by women are performed by major orchestras? Where women rarely fill the roles of conductor, composer, and soloist all in one evening? Given this belief, I cannot help but be skeptical when women express such hesitancy to discuss how their work is informed by feminism and the gender biases it works to combat. Now let's be clear: classical music is a subject of which I know very little. Most of what I do know has been culled from interviews like this one. My thoughts here are not about their music, which I appreciate from my particular perspective as a total classical music philistine. What I would like to comment on, however, is Higdon and Aslop's seeming desire to distance themselves from feminism.

In my own professional life as a professor, I often heard my female students deny that their gender has every substantially interfered with their own ability to succeed. Such remarks often leave me amazed, thinking are you really living in the same world I occupy? I'll admit to feeling some small bit of jealousy for their ability to live their lives free from confronting the heady and often-frustrating issues at the heart of the feminist cause. On the other hand, I wonder if they are deliberately distancing themselves from a blatant feminist message for fear of being branded whiners? Or do they really believe that there is simply no room (or need) for feminism in their lives? I frequently have to convince my students that gender biases still exist, that feminism is not a dirty word, that one doesn't have to be a bitter, man-hating woman (usually the assumption is lesbian, of course) in order to be invested in the feminist cause, that having discussions about feminist issues can be worthwhile and productive. I wonder: would either Aslop or Higdon call themselves feminists? Their statements and their art make it clear to me that, even if they are hesitant to adopt the label, they fit the definition to a T.

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